SMALL ERRORS, BIG PROBLEMS

 

A Coast Guard rescue swimmer tells you how to keep your head (and boat) above water.

Youbeen planning this voyage for months. The galley is stocked; slips are reserved at the best marinas along the route; the weather is shaping up; and the boat has been checked and rechecked. Youalways made it back just fine before, so your personal boating experience is about success. My boating experience, however, has often been about one failure after another.

As a helicopter rescue swimmer for the U.S. Coast Guard, itmy job to fly out with my crew and bring boaters home from adventures that didngo as planned. Ibeen on hundreds of search-and-rescue missions and Iheard stories about hundreds more. Experience has taught me that, with rare exception, two things are true almost any time a boaterplan falls apart: First, the captain was certain he and his boat were ready when he left the dock. Second, his vesselissue was almost entirely due to something he forgot to do (or think about) before leaving the marina.

No one can prepare for every eventuality, but if you remember the five items below that most of the rescued forgot, your adventure should end safely back at the marina.

YOUR BOAT IS HEAVIER THAN THE WATER

Nothing undoes a trip like water on the outside of the boat making its way inside. In Seaworthy: Essential Lessons from Boat U.S. s 20-Tear Case File of Things Gone Wrong, Robert Adriancedata matches my own experience —that a primary cause of accidents at sea is flooding that often comes from failed fittings and hoses. Remember that, no matter how sturdy a boathull, your vessel has large holes drilled through the bottom and the only thing keeping the water out is a S3 clamp and a rubber hose.

"But I check those clamps and hoses all the time," you say. Thatawesome. What about the seacock they are tied to? In the event the clamp or hose fails, that valve is the most important moving part on your boat. When water is pouring in at a rate of 200 gallons per minute, itnot the time to find out if the seacockhandle turns but the ball inside the valve doesn. (Iseen it.)

Check these often. Seacocks should move freely and easily and you should be able to find them and operate them in the dark.

OFFSHORE IS FARTHER FROM THE HOSPITAL THAN YOU THINK

Every year, the Coast Guard performs an enormous number of medical evacuations, and in most cases the medical ”arena real surprise at all.

The medical history of your friends may not be your business on land, but remind your passengers (and yourself) that to sea”means you could be hours from the nearest hospital. I simply canrecall the number of rescues Ibeen on where the weather is fine, the boat is fine, but a passenger is having an avoidable medical emergency. Captains should insist on knowing as much as possible about the passengers on their boat.

If your business partnerwife has a history of seizures, or your friendson is terribly allergic to bees, you need to know that and be prepared. Prescription medications that are deemed critical at home (heart meds, insulin, seizure meds, etc.) go along for the ride, or the people who need them shouldnbe going with you.

Coast Guard

YOUR PASSENGERS DON T KNOW WHAT YOU KNOW

I think itgreat that youmastered the joystick control and can back your 48-footer into the slip on a windy day without so much as scratching a fender. But if you want to really impress me, show me a man-overboard drill where you are the man overboard. Who else aboard knows how to make the turn, assign a lookout and call for help? If your plan includes your doing all the hard boat handling and damage control when things go wrong, youforgotten that you are the thing that might actually go wrong.

After taking an injured captain off a beautifully appointed 12-foot sport-fisherman, I told his wife and 17-year-old son which hospital we were taking him to. The look in their eyes told me we had a whole new problem to handle. The two of them had no idea where they were or how to get back. always handled the boat,”his wife said, and a simple medevac for a broken rib and shoulder turned into real distress for his family and a whole new rescue case for the nearest cutter.

Your passengers donhave to be expert helmsman or licensed captains, but everyone aboard should know how to make a distress call, mark a position on a plotter or GPS, stop the boat, secure and start the engines, and have at least a basic understanding of your vesselsystems. All aboard should also be aware of the location of first aid kits and other emergency equipment.

TWO IS ONE AND ONE IS NONE

An owner of a 43-footer once called for the medevac of his injured father after running hard aground. Slamming into the salon table did some damage to his dadpelvis and his head. A corroded GPS antenna cable (and an overdependence on GPS) had him thinking he was in one channel rather than another, and for want of a $ 150 handheld backup, our guy got lost.

Remember that at sea, two is one and one is none. If you can have a backup for a crucial piece of gear, you should have one, particularly items of the communication and navigation variety. You donnecessarily need a backup satellite phone, but an extra handheld VHF in a drawer with a box of spare batteries can be a lifesaver when the main bus fails. While youat it, keep expired signal flares in a separate box. They can work years after the expiration date, and I promise the Coast Guard wonnotice the difference if you need to light one off.

IT S OK TO FAIL —IN FACT, PLAN ON IT

Itnatural to envision success when planning anything. The problems come when youplayed the successful version of’your trip so many times in your head that you try to make the world line up with your plan, even when it doesn. Call it misplaced optimism, but ignoring signs of danger in favor of a successful vision of a trip is where many mariners get into trouble.

Spend time making plans for failure and decide ahead of time where else you might go if things go wrong. Identify possible bailout opt ions in case of bad weather. If your perfect plan includes making landfall every night by dusk, then make a plan for when that falls through and you have to motor through the darkness.

Decide before leaving the dock under which circumstances you will deviate from the dream plan. Set your limits and know when youwilling to give up on this trip so you can have a better one next time. This kind of thinking and consideration leads to smarter decisions about how to prepare and proceed safely.

A mapped-out plan for potential worst-case scenarios gives you real options if and when things go south. Writing them down —both success plans and failure plans will prepare you for either eventuality.

Inot trying to take the fun out of your trip. I love boating. What I am saying is that Iseen a lot of good trips go bad due to a lack of foresight. Donlet yourself lapse into complacency thata result of routine success.